How Do Leading Methods Mislead? Measuring Unmeasurable Public Opinions in Authoritarian Societies

Dr. Ammar Maleki

Public opinion surveying through phones and interviews is an established method in free societies. In societies under authoritarian regimes, however, the challenge is how to measure public opinions in such a way that people express their genuine opinions about sensitive topics without fearing the regime’s retribution. The high demand for understanding public opinions in influential authoritarian countries stimulated institutions and researchers to utilize the conventional sampling methods without considering their context-dependent limitations and misleading results. Knowing this demand, some authoritarian regimes themselves invest in polling as a propaganda tool, buying legitimacy by selling indicators such as high electoral turnouts and regime-confirmative results acquired through conventional methods. Although such probability sampling surveys employ the leading methods, which are widely used as reliable indicators for regime support, political participation, and public satisfaction in democratic countries, they cannot reflect the real picture of public opinions in authoritarian societies due to self-censorship. The widespread access of people to the internet and the popularity of social media, even in authoritarian societies, create a window of opportunity for innovation in measuring public opinions in authoritarian countries. This study presents an innovative usage of online surveys to measure Iranians’ unmeasurable attitudes. Examining the challenges of misinformation provided by conventional survey polls in the Islamic Republic of Iran, this article presents the results of an anonymous online survey conducted in 2021 by the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN) among Iranians residing in the country. A comparison of the online survey with the 2020 face-to-face survey conducted by World Values Survey (WVS) confirms the hypothesis that leading scientific methods may result in invalid findings in authoritarian societies while anonymous online surveys can reveal a more realistic picture of what people think and demand.